Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Rembering Brown County (and a little about the Nobel Prize)

Drove down to Brown County with friends last Saturday for a party in the woods at Susie and Larry’s cabin. They call it Larryland.

South of Trafalgar, as the predictable grid of northern roads gave way to winding and turning lanes among the hills, I got to thinking about the year and a half I lived in Brown County after graduating college.

I’d spent so much of my life on the flat land of northern Indiana, moving to Brown County in the mid-‘80s at the age of 24, the place just didn’t feel like any part of Indiana I knew. It felt like the south.

I rented a guesthouse from an elderly woman named Angie, just west of Nashville off 46, up a steep hill and in the forest right across from the Little Nashville Opry. My place was one room, maybe 20’ x 20’ with a kitchenette built into one wall and an entire bank of windows, ceiling to floor, looking out on a ravine on the opposite wall.

Angie was a remarkable woman. She’d spent her life in New York as an editor at various fashion magazines. At retirement she followed her daughter and son-in-law to Brown County in the 60’s. They lived next door to us. Angie’s frail body was bent and twisted by arthritis, but she lived with a determined joy for life, her house filled with mementos from her life out east.

Angie had a dog named Ky. He was half German shepherd, half coyote. My first night there I came home from work after dark. As I walked from my car in the pitch black of the forest, I could hear Ky growling as he circled me in the undergrowth. In a scene right out of a horror film, I fumbled with the key in the unfamiliar lock, panicking as Ky drew closer, his growls more insistent. I burst inside, quickly slammed the door and flipped on the porch light. Ky glared back at me, teeth bared.

Angie had apparently watched the whole thing from her window.

She met me in the driveway in the morning and said, “Maybe you better feed the dog for a few days. You need to make friends with him” I did and Ky and I were friends from then on. Many nights he would sit outside my window and howl at the darkness. Coyotes on neighboring hills would howl in response, their cries echoing through the woods.

Angie’s son-in-law Sam was a former New York attorney who retired to Nashville and got elected County judge. Sam was an expert on mushrooms and had written a book, “A Judge Judges Mushrooms,” detailing every kind of mushroom that could be found within a mile of his house. Occasionally he would show up at the door exclaiming, “There are these fabulous little red mushrooms growing under the propane tank. Sauté those in some butter. You’ll love ‘em. But watch out for the puffball mushrooms. They’re poisonous.”

His enthusiasm usually included a casual warning that made you afraid to pick and eat anything.

As I sat around a campfire at “Larryland” on Saturday I thought too about the cultural differences between northern and southern Indiana. There are towns down there with names like Gnaw Bone and Bean Blossom. There’s a little bit of a nasal twang down there that you don’t hear so much in Marion or Ft. Wayne. Listen carefully next time you hear John Mellancamp being interviewed and you’ll hear what I mean. And I heard the term “you-uns” for the first time and then often, a term interchangeable with “ya-all.”

And there’s a driving culture too. Brown County drivers will pull out in front of you no matter what, forcing you to slam on your breaks to avoid a rear-end collision. Locals spend so much time trapped on those winding-curving roads behind slow-driving northerners who’ve come down to gawk at the scenery, they’d just rather get in front of you, no matter the risk.

When I originally went down for the job interview, Nashville looked like a happenin’ little town. What I didn’t know until I moved there was that, at least in those days, it closed down around 6 o’clock. Bloomington was my salvation. Younger friends from high school, still at IU provided nightlife. There were sorority dances, movies, and bars in what has to be one of Indiana’s best towns.

It was there that my wife and I first dated. She would drive down from Bluffton (the flat northland) and spend the weekend with me.

Saturday, as I watched the guests – mostly Noblesville folks – the adults playing corn hole and Mexican horseshoes while the kids rode 4 wheelers and played kickball amid the towering trees, I couldn’t help remembering that there’s just something a little different about the southern part of the state.

Thoughts on Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize
Of course there are those . . . bothered because the President of the United States got the Nobel Peace Prize. Interesting that it was just a few years ago these same folks were calling Bush’s detractors, “un-American,” for not supporting the president. But even some fans of Obama are a little puzzled by the award. I was surprised the Nobel committee did it, but not puzzled about why.

Just after the announcement, one of the smartest, quiet observers of politics I know, fellow Realtor Bill Campbell, came in the office and asked me what I thought. Trying to boil it down to the simplest terms, I answered, “He got it because he isn’t Bush.”

Bill smiled and paused, as he often does at my blunt observations and offered a similar, though far more insightful answer. “It was the Nobel Committee’s way of saying: America, if you want to be the leader of the free world, this man’s approach is what we want.”

Bill said it better than any high-priced media pundit has in the past week.

The world never understood why we elected George Bush. Where some Americans saw tough resolve in Bush’s foreign policy, the world saw belligerence. Where some Americans saw folksy style in Bush’s gaffs and stammering, the world saw ignorance.

From the world’s perspective, the only tool George Bush had in his foreign policy tool kit was a sledgehammer. So every problem was addressed with that sledgehammer, whether verbal (“You’re with us or against us,” & “Axis of Evil”) or militarily (2 wars, torture, illegal wire-taps, Guantanamo). In Obama, they see a person whose tool kit includes precision tools for delicate work. The kinds of tools of diplomacy that do less unintended damage and destroy fewer friendships.

Bill was right. This wasn’t about a specific accomplishment, as Obama’s detractors will insist it should be. It’s about an international preference for how America presents itself on the national stage. Like many of the Nobel Committee’s picks over the years, it was a choice that said, “We think “this (Obama),” rather than “that (Bush)” is what the world needs now.”

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